City eyes tree bylaw that could impact private property rights

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Troy Shantz

If you want to cut down a tree on your own property it is your right to do so.

But it might not stay that way for long.

Sarnia is considering a tree bylaw that could follow the lead of other Canadian municipalities and restrict what residents can do with their trees.

City council has directed staff to prepare a draft tree bylaw and seek input from the community, something city planner Nancy Bourgeois did at a Green Drinks environmental discussion last week.

The 40 people in attendance agreed Sarnia’s trees need protection, but disagreed on the details.

“There’s no freakin’ way I would go for a bylaw that says you can come on my property and tell me what I can and can’t do with trees on it,” said Brent Vachon of Sarnia. “And I love trees.”

Vachon said he doubted many residents would support giving bylaw enforcement officers authority over trees on private property.

But other municipalities already have restrictions. In Toronto, removing a tree on private property wider than 30 centimetres (one foot) requires a permit costing about $100. Failure to obtain a permit can result in fines of $500 to $100,000 per tree.

Others said they welcome a municipal bylaw to maintain native species.

“It doesn’t have to be a scary thing,” said Shawn McKnight, owner of Return The Landscape, an organization that uses native plants to restore properties.

“People just don’t even understand what a native and non-native tree is, and how important they are.”

A Lambton County bylaw already covers trees in bushlots one hectare or larger, but nothing currently exists to protect individual trees and smaller lots.

Each year, City Hall receives complaints about the clear-cutting of woods and the removal of large individual trees from urban yards.

Council considered a private property tree bylaw in 2011, but only directed staff to proceed after receiving complaints about a Lake Huron shore lot filled with “heritage” trees that were destroyed in 2014.

The proposed bylaw is being drafted in conjunction with a forest management work plan for council consideration later this year.

Bourgeois said a study of the existing city’s trees could cost $50,000 or $100,000.